Capitol Journal: California lawmakers are stuck on Trump, but there’s a problem at home that needs attention: dirty water

A farmer near Stockton checks the salinity in an irrigation canal that draws water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

While President Trump and his California resistors dominate the spotlight, a little outfit without much pizazz is trying to draw state government’s attention to sickening drinking water in the San Joaquin Valley.

What’s normally heard about water in the parched valley — or read on farmers’ crude signs along Interstate 5 and Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Stockton — is that the federal and state governments have cruelly tightened the irrigation spigots.

Never mind that we’re only now emerging from a historic drought, caused not by government, but by the supreme rainmaker. And never mind that water also is needed for spawning salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to keep alive the ocean fishing industry.


What’s heard about a lot less is that hundreds of thousands of people — mostly low income, and many of them farm workers — are being forced to drink unhealthy, contaminated tap water unless they can get healthy water trucked in or buy it bottled.

And what the political power structure doesn’t like to acknowledge above a whisper is that much of this health problem is caused by farmers’ fertilizer and cow manure. There are lots of dairies and beef cattle in the valley, as you may have smelled driving I-5 near Coalinga.

A typical dairy cow produces 33 tons of manure a year, according to the activist Community Water Center, and there are 1.6 million dairy cows in the San Joaquin Valley.

Animal manure and chemical fertilizer produce nitrate that sinks into the groundwater and is pumped up through wells into home plumbing.

An overload of nitrate can cause “blue baby syndrome” — shortness of breath and skin-darkening — miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, sudden infant death syndrome, diarrhea and cancer.

Forget about boiling the water. That only makes the nitrate worse.

There’s also another prime valley poison: arsenic. It occurs naturally in the ground, but is augmented by fertilizers and pesticides. Too much arsenic can cause skin damage, circulatory trouble and cancer, especially among children and pregnant women.

The deeper the well, the more arsenic there is. So that’s a huge problem right now. Farmers drilled deeper and deeper during the drought to replace dwindling surface water normally supplied by aqueducts. As aquifers were drained, community and family wells were left high and dry, or producing crud.

Health problems are particularly acute in Tulare County, where more than 90% of residents rely on wells for drinking water. It has above average death rates for, among other maladies, sudden infant death syndrome, liver diseases and all sorts of cancers, according to the Community Water Center.


The bad drinking water extends throughout the valley — not every place, but too many — and affects an estimated 300 communities.

The small Community Water Center, which sprung up a few years ago in Tulare, is trying to prod the Legislature and Brown administration into paying more attention to the problem.

Updates from Sacramento »

The group’s activists came to Sacramento last week to meet with legislators and reporters, but didn’t attract much interest. That’s typical of an organization that doesn’t wield hefty political clout and can’t afford to donate campaign money. The agriculture industry, by contrast, is a well-heeled mover and shaker.

“They’re awesome,” says Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, referring to the center. “They’re not only good at raising an important issue, but very good at empowering local people to speak for themselves.”

A co-founder, Laurel Firestone, 38, took an uncommon route to the California farm belt. She grew up in Venice near the beach and in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Her father was a professor and her mother a sculptor. Firestone graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and began working in Brazil on human rights and environmental issues.

“I decided we’ve got these same issues in our own state, so how can I work overseas,” she says. “I had a law degree for the U.S., not Brazil. I started worrying about challenges in my home state.”

She and her attorney husband — a poverty activist — moved to Delano, a far cry from Venice and Harvard.

“There were not a lot of attorneys or services,” she says. “There were plenty of people like us in L.A. and the Bay Area. The valley seemed where we could have the most impact.”

They lived in Delano about nine years and then moved to the political action in Sacramento.

Unhealthy drinking water is also pumped from wells along the Central Coast and in parts of Southern California, affecting around 1 million people. But larger communities have money to operate water-filtering systems. Most little San Joaquin Valley towns don’t.

The state can supply the filtering systems with bond money. But local people need significant funds to operate and maintain them.

“In such a sophisticated state, it’s shameful in this day and age that people are living in these conditions,” says Wade Crowfoot, who heads the California Water Foundation, another activist group.

The goal this year is to persuade the Legislature to develop funding options — perhaps fees on fertilizer, bottled water and all Californians’ water bills.

“I’m for whatever will pass,” Marcus says.

One problem: Most San Joaquin Valley legislators are Republicans, and they really don’t like anything that smacks of taxes.

Democrats should take some time off from fighting Trump and find a way to supply healthy water for people they profess to care about, including immigrants here illegally.

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